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Diego Maradona: “I have seen God”

Diego Maradona: “I have seen God”

Diego Maradona could do things that a human being normally could not do. His disciples, therefore, considered him to be the extended arm and hand of the Almighty – and at some point, it is said, the day came when he believed them.

In the summer of 2018, the World Cup in Russia is overshadowed by a bizarre appearance in the stands in St. Petersburg. During Argentina’s match against Nigeria, Diego Maradona, visibly threatened by madness, is repeatedly broadcast in close-up to the whole world.

“Ar-gen-ti-na!” he roars.

“Li-o-nel!” he pleads.

But above all, he shouts crazy things across the stands that no one understands. The former king of football is completely out of control. He alternately asks a woman sitting next to him to dance with ecstatic twitches, leans dangerously over the railing to accept the homage of his fans, starts wild chants, gives the stadium and the world the extended middle finger and takes a nap in between. When Lionel Messi scores the eagerly awaited goal, the veins of his predecessor on the people’s hero throne swell, at the peak of the jubilation (“Messi! Messi!”) his eyes completely pop out of his head, and when he leaves the stands after the final whistle, he has to be supported.

Maradona was taken to hospital and the football world expected the worst that night. But the next day, the born-again gave the all-clear on Instagram, writing defiantly: “Diego will be around for a while.” Now the sad news reached us yesterday: the while is over.

Diego Maradona is dead.

This time it is true. It has to be said explicitly because many will not believe it at first, too many times Maradona has been declared dead. We remember well a fellow Argentine reporter who said at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa: “A cat has seven lives, but with Maradona, we stopped counting.” It was the same after the bizarre standoff in St Petersburg: as a result of a cardiac arrest, a red-hot busybody spread on the internet, the football king had died in hospital. Credibly and indignantly, Maradona contradicted this a few days later in his TV show:

Do I look like I’m dead?

At least he didn’t look well.

Diego Armando Maradona. You can’t do justice to this terrific, crazy and unique figure of football with one obituary, you need two: one for the supernatural football god – and the other for the poor guy off the pitch who couldn’t always manage without the ball on his foot and got lost in the labyrinth of life.

Yet this life had started well. Those who are born in Fiorito, this unfortunate district of Buenos Aires, don’t really have a chance, but the little fuzzy-headed boy made the most of it. At the age of 16, “El Pibe de Oro”, the golden boy, was already old enough for his first international match, and his Argentine national coach Cesar Luis Menotti said: “What Diego can do with his feet, we mortals can’t even do with our hands.” Not much later, the prodigy thrilled at FC Barcelona and SSC Napoli, as the world’s best footballer.

Above all, he was the king of the Neapolitans, and unforgettable for all those who were there is his one-man show before the 1989 UEFA Cup final against VfB Stuttgart. 70,000 Swabians were sitting in the Neckar Stadium when the magician scooped the ball onto his foot during the warm-up at the kick-off circle and began to juggle. The ball bounced onto his other foot, then onto his knee, chest, head, rested briefly on his neck, and back it went, head, chest, knee, foot. This went on for minutes, not once did the magician allow the ball to make contact with the ground, and at some point 70,000 Swabians were no longer sitting, but standing and celebrating (“Diego! Diego!”) this circus acrobat who gave them the greatest experience of their spectators’ lives. I was shooting a film that evening for the programme “Sport under the microscope” and stood in amazement on the sidelines, and when Maradona, so as not to jeopardise the punctual kick-off, finally dropped the ball, my cameraman said: “Now we can go. That’s the best we’re going to get today.”

The only time Maradona was even better was at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico when he elevated his country to the throne. In the quarter-finals, he danced past six English players from the halfway line and completed the goal of the century. He went on to become FIFA Footballer of the Century, along with Pele. A jury of experts chose the Brazilian, an internet jury the Argentinian. The nonsensical scholarly war over who was the better of the two was later settled by Brazilian World Cup coach Carlos Alberto Parreira with the question: “Who was better – Monet or van Gogh?”

You know what, write what you want.

But soon it was on to the darker news. One day, Hector Pezzella, the director of the “Güemes” clinic in Buenos Aires, treated his compatriot who had been admitted with unclear symptoms and was quoted with the confusing diagnosis: “I think Maradona thinks he’s a god.”

Were these the late effects of that legendary World Cup match against England in 1986? For Maradona had scored a second legendary goal that day, unfairly, irregularly, with his bare fist. “That was the hand of God,” he claimed after the final whistle. Did Maradona think he was an extension of the Almighty? Or God himself?

That’s as good as we get today.

His disciples, his worshippers, encouraged him in this belief. They founded their own church for their saint, the “Iglesia Maradoniana”, whereby they did not write “Dios”, the Spanish word for God, but “D+10+S” – the “10” stood for Maradona’s biblical back number. His professing fans regularly met on his birthdays, worshipped him devoutly and sold T-shirts as his apostles that read: “I have seen God.” In the long run, only the strongest last. At some point, Maradona could no longer keep it together – and his fake friends, who supplied him with drugs, took care of the rest.

In his mid-30s, he began to talk about dying for the first time. At the 1994 World Championships, he, the crowned king, had been caught doping. He announced that he was not killing himself only because of his daughters, and once he said on television: “Many always wanted to see me dead – I am dead.” The world then understood how serious it was, at the very latest, from the following pictures: A small, fat star bounces into the TV studio for a talk show, dances the tango with a beauty queen named Cecilia – and collapses. Afterwards, he is seen again in a wheelchair in hospital, and the medical world whispers about “irreparable defects”, points to the destruction of brain cells due to excessive cocaine consumption and sees the star psychologically disintegrating.

Depression, aggression, paranoia, suicidal tendencies. Maradona was then sent to Switzerland, to a clinic on Lake Biel, to fight his drug addiction, and at the height of the therapy the professor demanded of him: “I want you to play big again at the 1998 World Cup.” Maradona nodded. Shortly afterwards, however, he shoved behind in the face of a stadium steward in England with his trousers down, and in Alicante, Spain, he smashed two doors, a table and five chairs in a hotel. A heart attack followed, by which time he was 43. And before he was 50, he was poking around in the fog of his life with the pole in such a way that a psychiatrically knowledgeable observer reported: “In a hospital, one thought he was Einstein and another Newton, and when Maradona said he was Maradona, they laughed.”

By any means necessary, Maradona at times tried to destroy himself in the deadly cycle between genius and madness. His liver was affected, and compounding the problem was his corpulence, which swelled to 140 kilos. He made the headlines as the “Maratonna”, and in the greatest emergency, his stomach was cut in half. He then went into temporary exile in Cuba, had Fidel Castro give him a revolutionary cap, and in the end, the shortest of all headlines was: “He’s crazy.”

But he lived. “The bearded one,” Maradona said, “always saves me.” He didn’t mean the bearded man in Cuba, but the one in the sky who once again lent him his hand: Maradona did indeed rise from the dead – and became national coach.

Especially those journalists at whom Maradona had occasionally shot with an air rifle were sceptical at first. In the past, they scoffed, Diego had been magical with the ball at his foot, but as a coach, he had a board in front of his head. He then paid them back brilliantly, or rather: genitally. After the successful qualification for the 2010 World Cup, he offered the reporters in the press conference: “And now you can all give me a blowj…” – and shot them down.

Then, at the World Cup in South Africa, everything went quite well at first. And when Maradona performed, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house; I witnessed it in the “Soccer City” stadium in Johannesburg. His Gauchos had just beaten the Mexicans 3:1, when an Argentine colleague in the press conference was already thinking ahead – and asked Maradona about the next opponent in the quarter-finals, the Germans. “No, no, no,” he grumbled sullenly, “today we talk about our victory and tomorrow about Germany.”

The reporters continued to press.

Didn’t you listen, I’m not saying anything about Germany!

Just one word, Diego, one of them begged …

“You know what,” Maradona then went ballistic, “write whatever you want.” And then he passed his thick, steaming Havana again, which one of his henchmen had kept warm for him while the master spoke.

Maradona was on fire. He was El Diego the Great once more. Every day he was the talk of the town – with diamonds in his ears and a rosary wrapped around his fingers, he magnetically attracted every camera, every step, every blink of an eye was broadcast live – and Maradona promised that if he won the World Cup he would run naked through Buenos Aires. Then it went splat. 0:4 against Germany. Out.

Diego Maradona, the once idolised player, was henceforth increasingly pitied and ridiculed. He did strange things, continued to befriend questionable leaders (as he had done with Ghadafi in Libya), took to the stage in the election campaign in Venezuela for Chavez and later for Maduro (“I am his soldier”), and bitter words now frequently made the rounds about him, from “full of crap” to “crazy”. The World Cup appearance in St. Petersburg matched this. Shortly afterwards, he had himself driven around a stadium in Belarus and announced: “I am now president of the Dinamo Brest club.” What he did there for a short time has never been known exactly, but it is said to have been the best contract of his life after all. In the end, a sheikh in Dubai, a Mexican second-division club and a club in Buenos Aires also paid good money to be allowed to adorn themselves with the old world star who could do everything as long as he had a ball at his foot.

The final word should belong to Ryan Giggs. The Welshman, who used to dribble elegantly at Manchester United, was only a small light compared to the Argentine – but he knew what he was talking about when he said: “Today there is Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. But I’ve seen things from Diego Maradona that I’ve never seen from anyone else in the history of football.”

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Jogi Löw: “They will have to chase me out of football”.

Jogi Löw: “They will have to chase me out of football”.

After Donald Trump, Jogi Löw is also resisting handing over the reins. The national coach apparently does not accept the 0:6 against Spain, demands a recount of the goals – and thus takes a risk like Giovanni Trapattoni once did.

In the White House in Washington, a tragedy worthy of a stage is currently unfolding, and the theatre is coming to a head day by day. For Donald Trump does not want to leave. “Over my dead body”, the US president has vowed and refuses to hand over the keys, he is resisting the handover of office and is allegedly barricading himself behind sandbags in the Oval Office – as things stand, an FBI evacuation squad will have to storm the building and carry Trump out at gunpoint.

Why are we telling this story?

Because it is strikingly similar to another one that has been rocking German football for weeks now in this dreary autumn. Jogi Löw, our national coach, also refuses to give way – he stubbornly refuses to go. Yet the people have voted him out of office like the Americans voted their president out of office, only much more clearly. According to representative surveys, about eight out of ten Germans are scratching their heads in the aftermath of the 2018 World Cup flop and, above all, the unbearable 6-0 defeat to Spain, and think that Löw should give it a rest.

Fake news, counters the national coach. In any case, he has let all the votes go in one ear and out the other so unaffectedly that a blasphemous mocking gibe in reference to the 0:6 in Seville chased the message through the internet: “Jogi Löw doesn’t recognize the defeat and demands a recount of the goals.” A handover of office was still far from being thought of.

Although this story is undoubtedly a lie, at best a cheap joke to laugh along with, it confirms a galloping trend: no one in power voluntarily leaves the field these days. In sports, shows and politics, Giovanni Trapattoni’s old motto is becoming increasingly true: “One day I’ll have to be kicked out of football.”

Will Joachim Löw ultimately have to be led away in handcuffs and a straitjacket? For the moment, he is still defying the overwhelming rejection and shaking off all the mockers like pesky houseflies. Subtle critics accuse the national coach of not listening to the great Schiller, who in the heyday of his career wrote: “A good exit graces the exercise.” But back then it was all about gymnastics.

Now it’s about football.

It is said that there have been the occasional rebellious Löw questioners at the German Football Association, but whenever things get heated, the answers are given either by Löw himself or by Oliver Bierhoff. It remains unforgotten how the manager of the national team pounded the table after the 2018 World Cup flop and demanded: “We have to have tough internal discussions.” Jogi Löw spontaneously nodded to this, discussed it with himself for eight weeks afterwards as part of intensive visits to the Black Forest, and found out that he was the right man for the rebuild. This rebuilding is now taking a diversion via complete collapse, so Bierhoff immediately demanded again with presence of mind after the 0:6 against the Spaniards: “We have to analyse brutally.” Once again, Jogi relentlessly discussed the facts with Löw – and continued to be tough as nails without any fear of being beaten up by the football fans.

Is the fear of leaving even greater?

Every farewell is a small death. Many know this terrible fear, not only the national coach but also at least three of his former world champions. Do you remember the faces of Thomas Müller, Mats Hummels, and Jerome Boateng when Löw abruptly told them that although it had been nice with them for a long time, it no longer made sense? Hermann Hummels recounted that his son called him in despair on that gloomy day: “I asked: Are you injured? And he said: it’s worse.”

The fear of being out of the game always goes hand in hand with ghastly feelings. When Lothar Matthäus retired as captain in 1994 after disagreements with national coach Berti Vogts, he slept terribly badly afterwards and wrote confusing diaries. But he didn’t let up, because he was determined to build on his record as a national player, and under public pressure, he was allowed to celebrate his comeback at the 1998 World Cup.

No one likes to quit. Did Uli Hoeneß ever quit as Bayern boss? When he feels it’s necessary to put his foot down, he still throws it in everyone’s face and swiftly dismisses the defender Alaba or his adviser without asking the chairman of the board Rummenigge much beforehand. What did people expect, that after his departure Hoeneß would only be a greeting-godfather and would otherwise be bobbing around Lake Tegernsee in a boat with his wife? Everyone forgets that he grew up as a young footballer under the Bayern patriarch Wilhelm Neudecker, who still threatened in his old age: “When will I stop? Only when I fall into my grave. And then I’ll continue for another two years.”

Cutting back might still be halfway bearable, but retiring? “Never,” Trude Herr once sang, “do you go completely”.

Jogi Löw isn’t going at all.

Yes, he did think about it once, but only briefly. In another darkest hour, after the 2-0 defeat by South Korea at the World Cup two years ago, he promised bleakly: “I have the responsibility and I stand by it.” His next sentence could then have been, “I resign.” But he was probably immediately slowed down by the question: where to?

When will I stop? Not until I fall into the grave. And then I’ll go on for another two years

What awaits someone who gives up a dream job? Is there any life at all after retirement, or is the most you can do as a retiree is to kill time with a cruise to Honolulu, walking your Doberman or sporadic expert appearances on Sport 1’s “Doppelpass”? Should he, as the former national coach, spend the rest of his life jumping through burning hoops in the accompanying circus of football as roaring Löw? Should he watch old films of his victories on the sofa with a glass of sherry? The national coach would rather stick to the boxer’s motto “pick yourself up, wipe your mouth, move on”, as we would probably all do.

We lowland Tyroleans have no idea how the enviable ones feel up there on their summit, floating in the airy heights. That up there, that’s happiness. And no one wants to descend and go back to the bottom camp of the deep valley.

Tom Brady told it beautifully. The great US quarterback was asked by a reporter two years ago after his last Super Bowl victory why he still hasn’t quit at 41. Brady pointed to the ecstatically cheering audience and shouted the answer in the other’s face: “Why? Yeah, look at that!” Adrenaline rush, pure and simple. Where else is he going to get that in life?

Leaving is not sexy, that’s why Brady is still playing and still winning. And that’s why Donald Trump wants everything but to quit. And Jogi Löw has also made a habit of sitting out all of his setbacks. Or is he doing some soul-searching after all? Unbending optimists are bravely clinging to their dream that the national coach will soon retreat to the Black Forest for another eight weeks to brood, but then stand manfully in front of a camera and say: “I have come to my senses after all.”

Many would applaud him spontaneously, probably including Günter Netzer. He recalled his glorious time as a ball distributor at Real Madrid and sadly described how the tenacious perseverance of some old stars there did not end well: “In the end, they had to be lassoed off the pitch.”

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Part 2: A conversation with Ralf Rangnick

Part 2: A conversation with Ralf Rangnick

Hardly anyone else knows more about talent

By Luca Wodtke

Despite his great successes, Ralf Rangnick has never forgotten his roots. The “professor”, as many call him, was born in the small southern German town of Backnang. A man who has led a club from the lower leagues of German football to the UEFA Champions League in a very short time knows how to deal with talent. Rangnick is one of the greatest sports visionaries of our time.


We spoke about…
... how the interaction between the club and parents works
“That brings us back to the training profession. But it’s not much different in other sports and professions: if a child has great talent, he or she must have started at the age of five. And at the age of eight or nine, they must practice for countless hours a day and then learn with the best possible teachers. In principle, it’s no different with footballers. Before 2000, football was “learned” on the street. But today, street football hardly exist anymore, and it will not come back, due to social and sporting developments. The professional club that trains and develops its players has now taken its place.

Back to the parents: If a boy wants to become a professional footballer and has talent, he is usually confronted with an offer from a professional club when he is 12. It always depends on where the talent lives with his family. If the offer for FC Bayern Munich then goes to a family in Kiel, for example, the whole family has to decide together how to deal with the offer. Should the 13-14-year-old boy move 600 km on his own or will the whole family move? Will the offer be accepted at all? Of course, the boy has to want it himself, but the parents will go along with him later. In this respect, there automatically has to be a good and close relationship between the club’s sporting management, the academies, and the parents.”

... what happens when parents decide against the will of the child
“When parents go against the will of their own child and send them to another part of Germany, you have to ask yourself whether they are fulfilling their function as “good parents”. Personally, I could never imagine doing something like that, sending my own child away.

In such a case, the departing club can only influence the parents. If the player already has an advisor at that age, then the club must also influence the advisor so that something like that doesn’t happen. I always advise the parents and advisors with whom I have to do that a child should stay as long as it is in good hands and allowed to play in the vicinity of home. That way, the child at least has a chance to balance school, education, social contacts, and domestic life, which is already difficult enough for talented youngsters.

If, however, the club that is poaching the talent feels that it cannot develop properly in its hometown, then it might make sense to let the child go. That’s what happened with Joshua Kimmich. The only reason we were able to bring him to Leipzig was that VfB Stuttgart didn’t give him that squad spot in the U23 team. In retrospect, that was a glaring error of judgment. But the boy made this decision himself, he wasn’t sent away by his parents.

Of course, the financial interest of the parents might influence them to ‘sell’ their own child. Unfortunately, this goes along with the increasing salaries in sport. For many, the big money in football is very tempting. Nevertheless, I can only advise every talented youngster to take a two-track approach right from the start: Sport and school. And it’s best to do that for as long as possible. In the past, players learned a profession, then played football for 20 years, and then that profession no longer existed.

Normal everyday life is not really possible for a football talent. A talent, no matter what kind, has to be nurtured and that’s not possible if the child goes to school normally and has a normal everyday life. If you want to challenge a talent properly, then everything else has to be planned around that talent. That’s why it’s so great that the football academies are so important in the Bundesliga. Football careers today start earlier and end earlier. At 30, you’re actually already old news. You cannot start looking for a profession at 30, with a completely different salary bracket. That takes some getting used to.

Of course, it’s not easy for a family to build everything around a child, especially since only very few of the talented ones actually make it at professional level. That’s why it’s important that the talents at the academies leave school with qualifications in case they do have to fall back on a normal profession. If it’s between semi-pro football in the 4th league or a real job, they’re better off concentrating on the latter.

Top talents will make it as professionals, but their journey but it can be delayed or accelerated by the influence of authority figures such as parents.”

... how to deal with a talent that does not make the jump
“It’s different everywhere. Usually, the academy director is in charge of that, and also the coaches. There are two types of challenges for a young talent each year. You have to well enough in school make the grade and well enough on the pitch be kept on by the club. Players are subjected to evaluation twice a year. Here we can come back to Kimmich: he was denied the wish to go up to the U23s when he was 18. But because he is such an incredibly driven person, that didn’t stop him. That’s why he’ll be captain of FC Bayern and of the German national team one day because he simply has this talent of personality. These players are usually also the ones who manage to graduate from school with good grades despite missing quite a lot from school. Even if he misses 30% of classes, he still graduates with a better grade than others who are not professional footballers. Because he has this strong will.

In the end, the people in charge of a club decide how to deal with a player who doesn’t make the cut. Then the advisors and the parents come into play again. Ideally they’re be in the same boat. They have often already planned for the worst case, for the intermediate case, and for the best case. This applies both to an early end to a professional career due to a lack of talent, or due to injury.

Every club needs a career planner and advisor who looks after the talents’ path on a full-time basis. Unfortunately, there are only a few clubs that already have such a person at their club. The clubs in England are way ahead of us in that respect. But at the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of the club management to offer support for their youth players. The 2% who make it to the professional level don’t have to deal with that, but the vast majority, 98%, need this support. Of course, parents and advisors have to be aware of what a big responsibility they have. But the club definitely has to step up as well.

Talent acquisition starts so early these days. They get to the Bundesliga early enough. If a 10-year-old child has the chance to be promoted in his club, getting coached by someone who does a good job, then he should stay at the home club.”

“Part 1: A conversation with Ralf Rangnick” can be found here on our blog!

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Part 1: A conversation with Ralf Rangnick

Part 1: A conversation with Ralf Rangnick

There is hardly anyone else who knows more about talent

By Luca Wodtke

Despite his great successes, Ralf Rangnick has never forgotten his roots. The “professor”, as many call him, was born in the small southern German town of Backnang. A man who has led a club from the lower leagues of German football to the UEFA Champions League in a very short time knows how to deal with talent. Rangnick is one of the greatest sports visionaries of our time.

We spoke about…
...his coaching role models

“So I wouldn’t quite call them role models – I’d rather call them coaches who have accompanied and inspired me on my journey. As a coach, you have to find your own way. My coaching career started very early, actually at the age of 21, but then really at 25. I realised early on that the German football of the time was not what I had imagined and what I wanted to stand for as a coach.

That’s why, as a young coach, I had little choice but to look beyond Germany. In the 80s, there was Arrigo Sacchi with AC Milan, who already played a complete zonal marking system. That was something different from the man-marking that was typical of German football at the time. Sacchi was an important point of reference for me.

And then there was Valeri Lobanowski, the coach of Dynamo Kiev, who played against Viktoria Backnang in my hometown. Lobanowski showed what a difference it makes when a team really ‘presses’ on the pitch and how difficult that makes the game for the opponent. After that game, I watched a lot of Dynamo’s training sessions when they were at the training camp in Ruit.

In addition to these two coaches, who definitely influenced me, there is Helmut Groß, with whom I have a close friendship until this day. We worked together in Stuttgart, Hoffenheim, and at RB Leipzig.”

... the oft-quoted "street football"

“The coach lets the players determine the level at which the individual components are trained and “provoked” by the rules! It is necessary and helpful for the coach to know which screws he has to turn in order to optimally develop “his” playing philosophy. He should know exactly where he wants to go and rather not intervene at all than give the wrong “instructions”! In other words, he should trust the players and their desire to play and succeed. In the background, the players can be analysed. A coach can then record certain performance indicators and follow them up if he wants to observe and promote this development.

The key to the popularity of street football lies in the variations that are part of street football. The whole motto is “Repeat without repeating!”

Everything that challenges and encourages should then be brought out. This includes fun, playfulness, dynamics, passion, and the will to win. Tactics and strategy emerge along the way in the competition. The possibilities of street football can be monitored and accompanied by scientific means, up to and including AI. But it is better if the coach can trust his experience and a trained eye.

Unfortunately, such coaches who can do this are relatively rare and also only coachable with a lot of effort and patience, but every now and then there are exceptional talents who grasp things quickly and only need months for things others need years for.”

... his incredible eye for talent
“The question is how and on the basis of which factors you recognise a talent. This also includes a certain amount of experience and a trained eye. I would like to illustrate this with the example of Thomas Müller. When Müller was 16 or 17, only a few believed in his career path. But with someone like Helmut Groß or myself, who have followed the careers of young players for decades, you have a certain amount of experience to recognise whether a 16- or 17-year-old has what it takes to launch a great career later on. But you definitely need a trained eye for that. With Thomas Müller, who is not a really exceptional technically and doesn’t have fine motor skills, only certain coaches can see what strengths he brings to the table.

However, an assessment is always subjective. The scouts in the clubs have to recognise early on which positive characteristics of a talent have an effect on the team and what he can still become. First and foremost, this includes the player’s mentality. That is, as I like to say, the talent of the personality. There is always a chance for improvement here, see the example of Joshua Kimmich. Those responsible at VfB Stuttgart didn’t even want to give him a place in the squad in the second team when he was 18. That was the reason why there was even a chance for Leipzig to get Kimmich on loan for two years.”

... why talents are becoming younger and younger
“Of course there are opportunities to recognise players at 15 or 16. Mainly because players have an earlier start to their careers. It is now completely normal for a 17-year-old to play in the Bundesliga, if you think of Jude Bellingham or Giovanni Reyna at Borussia Dortmund alone. Nowadays, it’s no longer unusual for a 17-year-old to play at the top level. But you need coaches who recognise what a player can achieve and who have the courage to put a young player onto the pitch.”
... where this development comes from
“It has changed in the last 10-15 years. I remember when Mehmet Scholl was a player for Bayern Munich. He was still considered a talent at 25. You have to decide until when a player is still considered a talent. For me, a player is no longer a talent at 21. Today, a player is mature at 21. Timo Werner had already played more than 120 Bundesliga games by the time he was 21. In my opinion, a player is still a talent at 17, maybe until 19, but after that, you can no longer use the word talent. Because young players today are so well-trained by the academies that even a 17-year-old who is is fully grown physically can have all the prerequisites to be an accomplished player. If you look at Bellingham or Reyna on the pitch, you see fully professional players. These are athletes who meet all the requirements and only need coaches to develop them further and, above all, give them the chance to play regularly.

This development has already taken place in the last 10-15 years. Football has become a completely different sport. If you just look at the number of metres run, especially sprints, you can see that football has changed completely. That also means that the value of young players who have the physical prerequisites for the faster sport has been recognised. It’s no longer like it was 20 years ago, when people thought: “Oh well, he needs time now. He has to be introduced slowly. The older players have to teach him first how this works properly”. 20 years ago, a 19 or 20-year-old playing in the Bundesliga was a total exception.”

... which role the understanding of tactics plays today

“First of all, the coach needs to understand tactics. He has to decide how he wants to play. The players are fully versed in tactics as professional footballers because they have been developed at the academies. 20 years ago, nobody thought that being a professional footballer was a vacation that could be taught. That only changed thanks to the establishment of academies at the turn of the millennium.

Nowadays, no professional club can get a license without an academy that employs at least two full-time pro coaches. That’s why you can learn the profession of a professional footballer from a young age.

It is actually an absolute rarity today for a player to make a career in the Bundesliga if he hasn’t already played for one of the Bundesliga clubs at the age of 13. If you look at the 2016 German European Championship team, there was only one player who did not spend his youth in the academy of a professional club. That was Jonas Hector. This shows that the profession of professional footballers, including knowing “How do I feed myself? How do I live? What factors are important?”, has become an apprenticeship profession. That’s why a 17-year-old who has the right mentality and pays attention to everything he’s learned, is ready for Bundesliga football. Whether these young players get the chance, later on, depends on whether the coaches have the courage to let them play.

In Germany, many young players are allowed to play. It’s more difficult for young players is in Italy, where many ex-professionals are coaches. They see their youth players in the same way as they were trained back then, which is of course no longer realistic today. That’s why it’s unfortunately still rare in Italy for a 19 or 20-year-old to be a regular player. It’s mostly the smaller clubs that let the young players play. Of the top leagues in the world, Germany has the largest number of young players making their debuts and England is now catching up, especially with the foreign coaches now at the top clubs.

There is a very interesting story about this: of the eight teams in the quarter-finals of the 2018 Champions League, 180 of the 200 players were already playing exclusively men’s football at the age of 17 and were no longer in youth teams, although theoretically they would have been allowed to play for two more years in the U19s. This confirms what I said: The club must ensure that these exceptional talents can already play men’s football at the age of 17.”

“Part 2: A conversation with Ralf Rangnick” can be found here on our blog!

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